For Derrick Rose, basketball is at once only a game and much more than that.
On the one hand, it's a fun and largely consequence-free activity in which Rose is paid handsomely to engage. It's something he's quite clearly good at, as his 2010-11 NBA MVP trophy with his hometown Chicago Bulls would suggest.
On the other hand, basketball has paved Rose's path to tremendous wealth and fame. It has delivered him from the poverty, the hardship, the hopeless and the violence that surrounded him during his upbringing on Chicago's South Side. It has made him a role model to many more who haven't been so fortunate.
You can understand, then, why Rose's impending return to action with the Bulls has long been a topic of such cultural import in the Windy City.
Of course, there's the strictly sports-related aspect of having Rose back in uniform that has fans in Illinois and beyond so giddy over the 2013-14 season. A healthy and determined Rose has made it his mission to deliver the Bulls their first championship of the post-Michael Jordan era, as a tribute to the millions of fans who stood by him throughout his 18-month recovery from a torn ACL.
Rose knows there's much more riding on his performance than just the Larry O'Brien Trophy. A championship can't possibly bring an end to the gang violence that has long racked his home turf, in a part of town that's come to be known as "Chiraq."
However, it could bring some hope and joy to Rose's neighborhood, while giving the All-Star point guard a bigger stage with even brighter lights from which to speak out about the scourge of street warfare. He was fortunate enough to escape it, but others—like Benji Wilson, a local legend who was gunned down by gang members while he was still in high school—have not been.
Over a weekend in mid-September, South Siders saw 25 of their neighbors struck by bullets from local gangs, with five fatalities. Thirteen of those victims, including a three-year-old boy, were harmed during a single incident, at a basketball court not far from where Rose grew up.
My friend actually coaches right down the street from there and his kids could've easily got out of school and went up to that park and would’ve got shot if they were there. It's sad that it happened but at the same time, you got to try to fix it. [But] with me being so busy, and just getting ready for the season, I haven't had time to even touch on the subject.
It's a subject that Rose has touched on in public before. During the summer of 2012, he broke down while promoting his D Rose 3 shoe at a launch event for Adidas. Rose was moved to tears by the support he'd garnered from fans all over the world and by how lucky he felt, as a product of the troubled Englewood neighborhood, to have so much positivity in his life, unlike so many others in his community.
This, amid yet another bloody year on the streets of Chicago. According to the FBI's official crime statistics, Chicago registered 500 homicides in 2012—the most of any city and 69 more than the year before, even as the national murder rate continued to decline. Per DNAinfo Chicago, the city has already seen 318 homicides in 2013.
Rose understands that he could've suffered a similar fate during his own youth.
In speaking about the Peace Tournament, a local basketball event put on at St. Sabina by Chicago native Isiah Thomas and Roman Catholic priest Michael Pfleger, Rose expressed gratitude for having survived and now being able to give back to the community that raised him (via VIBE):
Growing up in that neighborhood, that could've easily happened to me when I was younger or happened to any one of my friends. I used to really be in that gym when I was younger playing AAU. So for me every chance I get to go back I do. Just by going to that peace tournament and for the kids to see me, I know that it’s touching the kids. When I was younger, I never saw an NBA player, not even glanced at one. They didn’t even come in my neighborhood, so for the kids to see me and see that I'm regular, I hope that they strive for the best like I did when I was younger.
That's why Rose is "all in" for Chicago. He wants successes like his to be closer to the norm than to the rare exception in his hometown. He wants to be a role model for those kids growing up in broken homes, who are surrounded and influenced by a gang culture that has long eaten away at the very fabric of Rose's own roots.
It's a massive undertaking for anyone, much less an NBA superstar whose schedule is already chock-full of workouts, practices, games, advertising shoots, promotional appearances and much-needed family time, with the requisite traveling in between.
But those responsibilities are part and parcel of, if not integral to, Rose's hopes for his neighborhood. By working hard, going about his business in a professional manner and succeeding both on and off the court, Rose is lifting up his neighborhood and giving those who share his origins something greater to aspire to.
Because basketball can be and often is more than just a game. For Derrick Rose, it's an avenue through which he can give back to the city he loves, to be a light unto the legions of children who might otherwise be swallowed up by the darkness that all too often descends on the South Side of Chicago.
Right now, with what my city is going through, it’s a lot of negativity and being 'all in' is me actually taking care, working hard, trying to be the best at my sport and just giving them kids that look up to me something to work for because I know that I'm a role model, even though I'm 24. I know a lot of young kids look up to me and I can't lead them in the wrong direction.
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